Putting the Silicon in Silicon Valley

Before we get to the geopolitics, can we have a moment to inhabit the technological sublime? Microchips are some of the most extraordinary objects humanity has ever made. Miller has a good illustration of this: the coronavirus is tiny, about a hundred billionths of a metre across, but it is a galumphing heifer of a beast compared to the smallest transistors being made in Fab 18, which are half that size. TSMC is now talking about transistor nodes in terms of three billionths of a metre. This is so small that quantum effects, which happen mostly at the subatomic level, become relevant.

While a critical analysis of their materiality and politics is more interesting, I enjoy Lanchester’s step back and admire the achievement. It’s fun to think that advanced chips are a technology that operates across mindboggling scales, requiring global supply chains, decades of investment, inventive ingenuity, and nearly atomic manufacturing. And all this to produce something that billions of people carry with them every day, powered by angels dancing on the head of a pin.